By now it’s no secret: college enrollment is down, and it’s way down among men. In fact, the gender gap is the widest it’s ever been in the history of higher education, with women making up roughly 60% of college students in the U.S.
The gulf represents a decades-long trend that is showing no signs of letting up. Fewer men earning college degrees than their female counterparts has become a vexing problem with wide-ranging socioeconomic implications, several Northeastern experts say.
“Higher female college-going makes sense,” says Mindy Marks, associate professor of economics at Northeastern. “The returns from a college degree have gone up, so the earning’s difference, for both genders, between what you can earn with a college degree versus not, has risen over time.”
It’s “Economics 101,” whose research includes the relationship between academic time investment and future earnings. “Women do exactly what the model predicts,” she says. “Really the puzzle isn’t about women, it’s about men.”
Its impacts can be felt not only in the workforce, where women are still lagging behind men but are projected to eclipse them, but in the dating and marriage markets, Marks says.
The phenomenon could be seen as far back as the mid-80s, Marks says, and the data tell an interesting and complicated story about how economic and social forces are conspiring to create a difficult dating market for college-educated young women due to plummeting enrollment figures among men, who are forgoing higher education for reasons that are still somewhat nebulous.
Marks says the imbalances on college campuses portends of a looming marriage shock. Heterosexual women will have fewer men to choose as long-term partners, as women are still far more likely to marry higher-status husbands than the inverse. Traditionally, college grads marry other college grads, she says. That could soon change.
“So that was a fine preference to have when on average men had more education than women, then women could find partners with the same level of education or more,” Marks says.
But, Marks says, in the world that “we’re going to be in very soon,” where marriage is already on the decline, so-called associate mating will soon be in crisis.
“When people start to settle down—we’re not there yet because of the lag, but we’ll get there soon—there are going to be more college educated women than college educated men,” she says.
The gender imbalance on college campuses doesn’t entirely account for school type, Marks says. Ivy League colleges still boast relatively balanced ratios, while community colleges have seen comparatively steeper declines among male students—at nearly three times the rate compared to female students, according to data from 2020. That gap is considerably wider among students of color, according to the National Student Clearinghouse.
And there are other variables to consider that have to do with the changing nature of higher education. College enrollment is typically defined by the number of “18- to 24-year-olds enrolled as undergraduate or graduate students in 2- or 4-year institutions,” according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
The gap also doesn’t necessarily account for the sheer number of non-traditional students, like those who are part-time or over the age of 24, says Sean Gallagher, founder and executive director of the Center for the Future of Higher Education and Talent Strategy at Northeastern. Similarly, the numbers may not account for workplace education and training programs and the popularity of free online classes on platforms like Coursera, which also offer varying certification programs. Data shows that women tend to participate in this type of lifelong learning at higher rates compared to men, Gallagher says.
While fewer men going to college is “something we need to try to figure out how to address,” Gallagher says we should be “challenging our assumptions” about what the numbers really mean.
“It’s time for a fresh look,” says Gallagher, who has surveyed Americans who’ve opted not to pursue college. “This is not new, but there is an added urgency.”
And many experts have said that urgency points to deeper underlying structural problems impacting boys in society today—that, among other things, they underperform in school compared to girls, suffer from higher rates of ADHD, and are eight times more likely to become incarcerated when they grow up compared to women.
“Boys really are getting left behind,” Marks says.
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